Making public transport work


'Public Transport' by Chris JohnstonA new round of Sydney-Melbourne rivalry has broken out in the last few years. This time, it's over which city has the most dysfunctional train system.

Sydney has unreliable services, and has cancelled failed projects for a metro and a 'smart card' ticketing system. Melbourne has unreliable trains, a smart card system that wasn't cancelled but should have been, and an unfunded metro project.

Residents of Brisbane and Adelaide also chafe at problems with their rail systems. Only Perth, it seems, knows how to run trains reliably and build new lines that work.

The most common remedy suggested for Sydney's problems is to privatise City Rail, letting market forces loose to promote efficiency and innovation. But the economists and journalists advocating this course seem unaware that Melbourne has conducted an experiment with rail privatisation since 1999.

The results in Melbourne are clear: subsidies have increased, services have deteriorated and public accountability has vanished behind a wall of spin and commercial confidentiality. And reliability is still deteriorating — the figures for the first quarter of 2010 were the worst on record — while Sydney is at least seeing a modest recovery.

Challenges as diverse as climate change, insecure oil supplies and rapid population growth point to the need for effective public transport. So what is causing the problems in East Coast cities, and what can be done to fix them? The most common answers offered by Australian commentators are public ownership, insufficient funding and low urban densities.

The way to test possible causes is to compare Australian cities to those where public transport works efficiently and provides a real alternative to the car. Among the leaders in this group is Zurich: at the most recent census in 2000, 63 per cent of trips to work in the City of Zurich were by public transport, 12 per cent on foot or cycle and 25 per cent by car (down from 26 per cent in 1990).

Comparable figures for public transport in Australian metropolitan areas ranged from a low of 6 per cent in Hobart to a high of 21 per cent in Sydney, with the car shares ranging from 71 per cent in Sydney to 83 per cent in Adelaide. The difference for trips to school was even greater: in Zurich City, the car share is only 2 per cent, compared with 60–70 per cent in Australian cities.

Of course the City of Zurich is more densely populated than Australian cities, although its density is relatively low by European standards. But the city's hinterland, which houses more than two thirds of the population of the Canton (state) of Zurich, incorporates sprawling suburbs and rural towns and villages. Yet the Canton-wide share for work trips by public transport is still a respectable 41 per cent (and rising), with the car accounting for 47 per cent; the share of trips to school made by car is only 3 per cent. Even rural villages in Canton Zurich have higher public transport use, and lower shares for the car, than Australian cities.

So population densities do not explain the difference in performance. Neither do funding: the Zurich Cantonal public transport agency receives an annual subsidy of around 50 Australian cents per passenger, a quarter the rate for Melbourne.

Zurich has achieved public transport success by combining efficient public enterprise with a liberal dose of 'subsidiarity'. The Canton-wide public transport agency only has 36 staff, who concentrate on financing, marketing and planning services. Their job is to knit trains, trams, buses and ferries into a network that offers the same kind of 'go anywhere, anytime' convenience as the car.

Passengers don't need to worry about cancellations, missing connections, or paying additional fares to transfer. Actual operation of services is devolved mainly to the Swiss Federal Railways and municipal transport agencies, some of whom in turn employ private contactors.

Across different cultures, climates and urban densities, a model of successful public transport is emerging. It relies on key common ingredients: central planning by a dynamic, lean, region-wide agency; extensive public accountability to prevent capture by vested interests; and skilled, motivated operating personnel. It is no accident that Perth has the best-performing public transport in Australia, because its governance and management arrangements are closest to the successful model.

Unfortunately, most governments, journalists and environmentalists in Australia are ignoring the ingredients of successful public transport, focusing instead on density, funding, privatisation or 'gee-whiz' technology. It's time we shifted our attention to what actually works.


Paul MeesPaul Mees is senior lecturer in transport planning at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. His new book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age is published by Earthscan.

Topic tags: paul mees, public transport, myki, metro, zurich



submit a comment

Existing comments

Or look at the Vancouver model. Their small but rapidly expanding metro rail network has unmanned stations, driverless trains and is user-friendly, fast, efficient, reliable and cheap. You no longer need drivers in lifts. Vancouver's metro shows that you no longer need them in "horizontal lifts" either. The whole network is centrally monitored by a small team.

Unfortunately in Sydney we are stuck with 1920's technology. Does our system have to go the way of Vancouver's original city rail network (complete abandonment) before we can have an efficient one?
ian | 14 May 2010

Why are people fascinated by a city with an extended urban area which is tiny, compared to our 2 main cities and a combined population of 1,000,000. I was taught to compare apples with apples, never pears. If I lived in Zurich, where I live in Melbourne, I would be more than half way to Basel.
Justine | 14 May 2010

I use public transport whichever city I'm in. Working in Perth did not win me over, I puzzle at the fawning adulation many (non Perth) people have for their "toy-town" system. Sydney has problems but it is a functional & fairly comprehensive network enjoying real usage.
Toim Win | 14 May 2010

Paul is spot on. In Adelaide the tram service and buses (to a lesser extent) do a job comparable (given comparable with what I've experienced in Europe from Paris and Amsterdam to Petersburg and Vienna.
endee | 14 May 2010

Portland, Oregon has an excellent light rail system which was expanded in the fall of 2009. More lines are being planned as the city expands over the coming years. It runs on time and despite record snow just before Christmas 2008, the services were unaffected.
Terry Steve | 14 May 2010

I would like to add that Seattle has started investing in a light rail system as a means of trying to cut down congestion on Interstate 5 and other freeways. It will take sometime before it is working properly but nevertheless it is a start. There was a lot of opposition to the proposed light rail network. My nephew of ours is involved with the engineering side of the project. Seattle's geography is interesting with many bridges traversing Lake Washington linking different parts of the city.
Terry Steve | 15 May 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up